Suppressing Academic Freedom in the Name of Inclusion at McGill

, Richard Cravatts, 6 Comments

Richard L. Cravatts, Ph.D., a Freedom Center Journalism Fellow in Academic Free Speech and President Emeritus of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, is the author of Dispatches From the Campus War Against Israel and Jews.

In what has become an increasingly frequent and troubling occurrence on campuses, a McGill University emeritus professor of anthropology, Philip C. Salzman, is under fire by pretentious, virtue-signaling students who wish to hear only viewpoints that conform with their own and who, in attempting to shield others from ideas that might make them uncomfortable, want to suppress the ideas of their ideological opponents.

The notion that a vocal minority of self-important ideologues can determine what views may or may not be expressed on a particular campus is not only antithetical to the purpose of a university, of course, but is vaguely fascistic by purposely or carelessly relinquishing power to a few to decide what can be said and what speech is allowed and what must be suppressed; it is what former Yale University president Bartlett Giamatti characterized as the “tyranny of group self-righteousness.”

In a November 20th “Open Letter Demanding the Overhaul of McGill’s Statement of Academic Freedom,” eight McGill student organizations not only attacked Professor Salzman and demanded that he be stripped of his academic credentials, it also critiqued the University’s stated policies on academic freedom. In their letter they suggested that if members of the McGill community are able to express any of their views without restraint—and without considering how this expression may negatively affect victim groups and individuals on the McGill campus—then academic freedom should therefore be contained, restricted to avoid “harming” these alleged victims. “Scholars have abused their right of free speech and academic freedom,” the letter contended, “to defend acts of rhetorical violence against marginalized communities on campus, shielding racist, sexist, and transphobic speech . . . .”

Because they do not understand that the central role of the university is foster the pursuit of knowledge and truth and not, primarily, to create a “safe” space where no one’s feelings are hurt by “rhetorical violence” and students do not have to be exposed to ideas of which they do not approve, the letter writers were also responding to a recent confirmation by McGill’s administration that academic freedom is a paramount goal of the University. Suzanne Fortier, Principal and Vice-Chancellor, specifically discussed this issue in an October open letter entitled “Academic Freedom and Inclusiveness,” observing very clearly that “McGill’s commitment to academic excellence requires that the University support an open environment where different views and ideas can be expressed and debated with mutual respect and without fear. This freedom is central to McGill’s mission of advancing learning through teaching, scholarship, and service to society.” 

But that succinct and appropriate commitment to promoting academic freedom was rejected by the letter writers who contended that “The defence [sic] of discriminatory dialogue at the expense of the safety, security, and wellbeing of people of colour [sic], reflects the power of whiteness in determining what is and is not considered acceptable speech [emphasis added].”

What does that mean? It means that these students believe, as other progressives have often suggested, that academic freedom is actually a strategic ideological weapon sustained by the white privilege of a powerful majority and is used as a way to further disadvantage minorities and other vulnerable groups whose lack of power limits their ability to use free speech to their own advantage. Of course, this view is exactly what Herbert Marcuse notoriously promoted, a view that “partisan” speech should be favored to promote “progressive” or revolutionary change, and that speech should, by necessity, be “intolerant towards the protagonists of the repressive status quo.”

While acknowledging the importance of academic freedom—in theory, at least—the students bemoaned their view that McGill’s commitment to “inclusion” is in direct conflict with its desire to protect academic freedom, and “while inclusiveness and academic freedom are both invaluable principles, they cannot always coexist.” They further contended, without any apparent embarrassment, that a legitimately inclusive campus is impossible to create unless the academic free speech of Professor Salzman, and others like him with similar controversial views, is suppressed so that some members of the campus community are not harmed or made to feel further marginalized by ideas of which they disapprove. In fact, they make the ridiculous claim that “the safety and wellbeing of marginalized students” is compromised if professors are allowed to voice opinions contrary to these sensitive souls.

The letter then set its sights on Professor Salzman as a current and specific offender, citing articles he had published which, in their view, condemned “multiculturalism, immigration, gender parity, cultural equality, social justice, and the Black Lives Matter movement, along with dismissing the existence of rape culture and systemic racism,” and that “[d]espite their editorial nature, Salzman’s opinions are presented as though they are objective facts.”

In denouncing Salzman’s writing because he presented “opinions as if they are objective facts” the students, of course, did the exact same thing by claiming that inclusivity, diversity, social justice, white supremacy, systemic racism, and Islamophobia, for instance—many of the terms that animate current progressive thought—are themselves absolutes truths and not subject to vigorous debate, discussion, and critique, precisely what Salzman’s articles do. And here they reveal their primary, though flawed, view, that regardless of how legitimate Salzman’s viewpoints may be (a point which they do not, of course, even consider), the sensitivity and feelings of his purported victims is more important than the creation of knowledge and academic discourse.

On campuses where feelings trump reason, this, of course, is an intolerable situation, and an inconvenient one, too, since those students unhappy with Salzman’s views would rather simply suppress Salzman’s ideas completely than have to defend and articulate their own opposing views. No matter if McGill wants to enshrine academic freedom as central to its mission; if any of Salzman’s ideas offend, make “unsafe,” oppress, or even challenge “people of color” or other ethnic or minority groups, they should be smothered, and McGill’s failure to do so makes them complicit in perpetuating inequity. “Framing this as an issue of Professor Salzman’s academic freedom,” the letter asserted, “rather than the right of Muslims and People of Colour {sic] have to feel safe illustrates the ways in which McGill maintains structures that protect and legitimize racist and Islamophobic dialogues [emphasis added].”

These virtue-signaling students have apparently not yet learned what the value of academic freedom actually is: that if they disagree with someone’s ideas and ideology, even ideas that are unorthodox or offensive, they have the same right as Salzman or any other faculty or student to express themselves and promote their viewpoint in the “marketplace of ideas.” And even though they clearly have decided that it is more important to shield individuals from having their feelings hurt than it is for people to be able to debate many topics does not make this opinion true, valid, or even a good idea.

More egregious, also, is that the same students complaining about the “violence” of thought and the prospect of offending or hurting the feelings of ethnic groups apparently does not include one specific group that should be, but rarely is, protected from hateful ideology: Jewish pro-Israel students on the McGill campus. One of the signatories of the open letter, for instance, is Students in Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights (SPHR), a toxic and virulently anti-Israel, often anti-Semitic student group. In July, as the Israeli government pondered whether to annex swathes of Judea and Samaria, the group published an unusually-lengthy open letter in the McGill Daily, “It’s Beyond Time,” in which they excoriated the Jewish state for its many predations and alleged human rights offenses, at the same time accusing McGill for being complicit in Palestinian oppression for not participating in boycotts, sanctions, and divestment campaigns against Israel.

Significantly, the McGill Daily has a long-standing, outrageous policy by which any pro-Israel articles or opinion pieces are intentionally excluded from the newspaper’s pages while pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel views like this one not only appear with regularity in the newspaper, but the Daily’s own board has published editorials attacking Israel and Zionism and promoting Palestinianism. In this particularly biased and one-sided rant the Jewish state is depicted as an illegal occupier of stolen Palestinian lands, a brutal, murderous oppressor of an indigenous population which regularly and viciously inflicts harm on an indigenous people while it deprives Arabs of land, human rights, even life itself.

“Ever since its establishment in 1948,” the letter read, “the settler-colonial state of Israel has subjected Palestinians to a wide range of racist policies, designed to physically eliminate them from their ancestral lands, while erasing or appropriating their history and culture.”  The founding of Israel was achieved, the letter suggested, “through a terror campaign of ethnic cleansing,” that an Israeli policy of apartheid . . . has existed since 1967 in the occupied West Bank . . , and Palestinians endure a brutal military regime of checkpoints, house demolitions, land theft, environmental destruction, deportation, and murder at the hands of Israeli soldiers, police, and settlers.”

The virulent views expressed in this letter, of course, are, and have been, subject to intense debate for decades, and, like similar forms of anti-Israel propaganda, this letter conveniently omits any historical context, misrepresents history and fact, ignores the Palestinian’s own complicity in the conflict (including the long-time use of terror in achieving political ends), and instead focuses exclusively on Israel and its catalogue of purported racist, immoral, illegal misdeeds. It also accuses people who support Israel or Zionism of being racists themselves, and blames them for supporting, as a result of their inaction, the alleged oppression of the Palestinians. And it is not coincidental that the authors of the Salzman letter omitted any mention of Jewish students potentially being harmed by “violent” thoughts, even though the frequency of anti-Semitic incidents on campuses has continued to spike and worsens yearly, primarily because of activist student groups like SPHR and their mendacious, bigoted, and biased rhetoric.

Is not the SPHR letter an example of the same abuse of academic of academic freedom that the eight student groups accused Salzman of committing? Could someone rightfully question why this letter—obviously designed to slander, delegitimize, and libel the Jewish state and its supporters—was not suppressed so as not to cause harm, offense, or ideological violence against Jews on the McGill campus? According to the defective theory that free speech should be limited if it can potentially cause harm, yes, but that would be the wrong conclusion to draw, just as it is in the case of Professor Salzman.

“Without sacrificing its central purpose, [the university] cannot make its primary and dominant value the fostering of friendship, solidarity, harmony, civility, or mutual respect,” observed the committee which wrote Yale University’s 1974 “Report of the Committee on Freedom of Expression at Yale,” the Woodward Report.

“To be sure, these are important values, and a good university will seek and may in some significant measure attain these ends. But it will never let these values, important as they are, override its central purpose,” the report continued.

“We value freedom of expression precisely because it provides a forum for the new, the provocative, the disturbing, and the unorthodox. Free speech is a barrier to the tyranny of authoritarian or even majority opinion as to the rightness or wrongness of particular doctrines or thoughts.”